The common style in American politics : a rhetorical analysis of ordinary, exceptional leadership



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U.S. political leaders must be meritorious to warrant elected office but they also should be average so that they may demonstrate empathy and win the trust of citizens. Rhetoric makes this contradiction work, but no scholarship yet describes it satisfactorily. Worse yet, public opinion now holds politicians in historically low regard. But without a systematic understanding of how elected officials discursively bind themselves to the people, it is impossible to say if or why the rhetorical model of exceptional-ordinary leadership is failing. In this study I describe this rhetoric, which I identify as the Common Style. By listening to politicians' language choices across four speaking situations, I discovered that the Common Styles consists of distinct registers, each appealing to a conventional value, thereby indicating that politicians share something in common with everyday Americans. When speaking to a national audience under expectations of relative formality, as did presidents when delivering a weekly address, chief executives mostly appealed to the American work ethic through a language of production, and in this way presented themselves as honorable laborers. When answering a special-interest group's invitation to speak at one their meetings, governors and mayors relied on a language of progress to show themselves to be concerned with improvement, as were the citizens who joined these voluntary associations. On the nationally broadcast television talk show, leaders shared stories of their uncommon experiences and thereby satisfied the universal need to know what others go through and subtly implied that they, like everyone else, were mortal. When leaders were expected to think on their feet in the presence of local constituents--as they must at town-hall meetings--they turned to a conventional language of deference to indicate their esteem for voters and a mutual desire for respect. I conclude that U.S. politicians seek to build relations with citizens based on the presumption of shared values, but the resonance of these ideals in a fractured society remains uncertain. Future studies must therefore investigate the effectiveness of the Common Style with different swaths of ever-changing Americans.